Greece was destined to burn

My grandmother had the theory that, as we get older, our mind subconsciously cleanses our memories of myriad misfortunes, leaving a sanitised version of the past for us to feel nostalgic about. The optimism of remembrance, she called it. Little did she know that her reasonable hypothesis would, one day, become the climate change deniers’ mantra.

Until a few summers ago, I dismissed my sense that our bushfires were getting worse as merely Grandma’s optimism of remembrance in action — that I was forgetting how awful bushfires were back in the day. Then, in 2018, I witnessed, from a few kilometres away, a horrendous fireball consume Mati, a seaside suburb north of Athens, in a few short minutes. It incinerated more than 100 people, including an old friend of mine, and her husband.

Two summers ago, this time from our home’s veranda, my partner and I watched helplessly as a firewall destroyed a whole mountain on the other side of the Saronic Bay in whose forests I had spent a magical holiday in the early 1970s. That fire burned for three days and two nights, during which the stars seemed pinned on a scarlet backdrop and the air was thick with ashes tasting of wholesale death. It took us weeks to smile again.

And, now, this dreadful summer. I need not describe the situation in Rhodes, Corfu, Attika. Ten minutes ago, I heard on the wireless that a twin-engine, fire-fighting Canadair plane had crashed near Karystos while diving into a ravine to throw seawater onto yet another conflagration. Greece is desertifying, but living here is worse than living in a desert, because we have to watch the process, the perishing.

Experts tell me that Greece is no outlier. That there are worse developments elsewhere: the hideous 2019 fires in South East Australia, or the unbelievable 50oC temperatures in British Columbia in 2021 I am sure they are right and that, unlike the Cold War and the Euro Crisis, which did begin in Greece, the climate disaster’s origin story isn’t set in my homeland. Be that as it may, for many people in the West, but also in the Global South, echoes of some very old Greek ideas about our collective fortunes can be heard in the tale of climate change, and thus resurface as Greece burns.

Hesiod told us the tale of Prometheus and his daring act to steal fire from Zeus. It was delivered to us, humans, so that we could flourish as a species. Accepting Zeus’s horrendous punishment, Prometheus clearly hoped that we humans would put fire to good use — that we would use it to lighten our lives without burning down the Earth. Hesiod did not share his faith in humanity. In his poem Works and Days, Hesiod did not hold back on the white heat of technology and the Iron Age, which he called the Fifth Age: “I wish I did not have to live among the people of the Fifth Age, but either had died earlier or been born later. For now truly is a generation of iron who never rest from labour and sorrow by day or from perishing by night… The wicked will hurt the worthy… bitter sorrows will be left for us mortals, and there will be no help against evil.”

Fire begat steel, steel begat power and power was something that humans could not handle wisely, Hesiod explained. He then prophesied that Zeus would have no choice but to one day destroy a humanity incapable of restraining its own technology, its own power. Today, surrounded by technologies that would have baffled Zeus no end, it is our children who are issuing warnings not too dissimilar to Hesiod’s.

Meanwhile, the adults are playing childish games. The new head of COP28 is, of all people, the CEO of an Emirati oil company. The EU political tide is shifting against the green transition. The boisterous new farmer’s party in the Netherlands has, for instance, inspired the European People’s Party to start questioning the EU’s net zero policies. Rishi Sunak recently did the same thing, emphasising that policy needs to be “proportionate and pragmatic”.

Returning to Greece, I am often asked about the prospects of green politics here, where it remains marginal at best. Why do the Greeks turn a blind eye to climate change, while the heat sizzles their bodies and crushes their souls?

A century ago, many Greeks were living off the land, sustaining themselves without playing a part in destructive industries, tactically burning to keep wildfires at bay. But after the Second World War, thousands of these deeply knowledgeable rural Greeks relocated to cities, to escape poverty. Urban sprawl became unbearable. Fifty years ago, city-dwelling Greeks with money to spare found themselves needing to escape, too: back to the land. My parents were among them.

In 1969, they bought a plot of land deep inside a splendid pine forest in an area 60km north-east of Athens that was deemed, and remains, unfashionable. The law allowed us to place, in between the pine trees, a log cabin no larger than 90 square metres. No electricity, no running water, no telephone. It was a heavenly place.

Soon after, others followed. Industrial workers, shopkeepers, drivers, school teachers: a cross-section of the working class and the Athenian petit bourgeois discovered the joys of “our” forest, as they had every right to. The more wooden houses appeared, the greater the popular demand for paved roads, electricity, water and all the conveniences of modern life. Gradually, residents bent the rules. Cement foundations, stone patios and unlicensed extensions appeared overnight.

The initial resistance of the municipality gave way to lobbying. Local politicians calculated that allowing development would win votes. Trees were cut to accommodate asphalt roads, electricity infrastructure was built, and telephone lines were installed. They, in turn, created greater demand for land and for houses that were breaking, in broad daylight, all the local laws.

The “development” of that forest is a good parable, an encapsulation of Greece’s path from the 1970s to our present predicament, via our entry into the European Union, the debt-fuelled growth that led to our bankruptcy and, finally, to the 13 years of austerity that followed — which badly hit, among other services, our fire brigades.

In 1999, the place was still recognisable as a pine forest, even if it had been infested with disrespectful humans. But one hot summer day, that year, a ravenous bushfire descended upon it from the North. Hundreds of houses were burned to a crisp. The forest was gone. It never came back. Had humanity not invaded, it would have regenerated in 20 or 30 years. Alas, many of the invaders took the opportunity to expand their abodes, building over where the trees once grew. Today, you would not know that a pine forest had flourished there during my teen years.

I try to understand why a people whose country burns do not embrace green politics. One reason, which we encounter all over the world, is that the weak know that the powerful have the political capacity to make them fund the green transition. After paying for the bankers’ crimes, after suffering a decade of harsh austerity, they will now have to pay the huge cost of restoring the planet, whose degradation generated wealth beyond the reach of any treasury.

However, in the case of my people, there is that other reason too: a well-repressed sense of common guilt. Our working class and our petit bourgeoisie know that, in the early Seventies, they too played their part in a steady assault on nature. While each did little individual damage, compared to the vast devastation wrought by the oligarchs, their guilt makes it easy for the ruling class to say to them: “We were in this together.” And in doing so, to silence dissent.

This article was originally published on Unherd.

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